What Is Quinoa? How Quinoa Became America's Hottest Whole Grain and Brought New Income to Bolivian Farmers

By Matthew Thompson, "Rediscovering Quinoa," March/April 2013

Farming quinoa has become big buiness in rural Bolivia as quinoa's nutrition and health benefits have made it the whole-grain darling of healthy diets.

"The argument that the expanding international quinoa market "brought new income to Bolivian farmers" is misleading insofar as it is meant to make consumers from rich countries feel that by buying quinoa they are part of a process of...

We eat lunch in the fields, potluck-style. Each worker pours his or her contribution into a heap on a crinkled tarp and soon the earthy scents of steamed potatoes, roasted corn, hard-boiled eggs and llama jerky fill the air. A brightly clad cholita—a traditionally dressed Bolivian woman in a striped shawl and bowler hat—spoons up lamb stew with yellow chili powder; the rest of us line up with chipped plates. We are just outside of Quillacas, Bolivia, a village of adobe and corrugated tin high in the dust-blown Altiplano, a desert nestled above 12,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. In the distance, peaks worshipped by the Incans shimmer in the thin air. The sky is powder blue and the sunlight shattering.

Acres of furrowed fields with pale green quinoa seedlings pushing up from the bottom of each cleft surround us. Sure, all the foods in front of us look great, but no meal on ­Bolivia’s high plains is complete without quinoa (say: KEEN-wah). For over 5,000 years, this whole grain (actually a pseudo-grain, because it’s cooked like grain but is the seed of a beet relative) has been a staple of local diets. Bolivia and Peru account for 90 percent of world quinoa production. Bolivia alone produced almost 44,000 metric tons in 2012. And ­quinoa is perfectly suited to this country—it thrives in the high altitude, arid conditions and infertile land.

The quinoa we eat for lunch is prepared in the traditional style: the raw grain is beaten in soapstone bowls, toasted over an open flame, rinsed and then simmered until tender. When I shovel in a bite, it has a gentle, popping texture and a subtle flavor that hints at toasted sesame or fresh-baked bread.

Next: The Quickest-Cooking Whole Grain »

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